Tammy Chen, killed in Burkina Faso, awarded Senate medal for being 'a ray of light'

The work Tammy Chen put into the world is still making ripples. This week, she was posthumously awarded the Senate 150th Anniversary Medal.

Scholarships in the works to honour Tammy Chen's memory

Tammy Chen was killed in a shooting in Burkina Faso in August. Now, she has been awarded a Canada 150 Senate medal posthumously for her dedication to education and community development. 0:25

Tammy Jane MacKay Chen was 32 years old and six months pregnant when she became one of the 18 people killed in a Burkina Faso terrorist attack on Aug. 13.

She was "doing what she loved," her mother said — completing a doctorate on poverty and gender issues at the University of Cambridge in England.

Thursday marked the 99th day since she was killed. Nancy MacKay would know.

"As a mother, I can feel it every day."

On Thursday, MacKay stood in a room inside Riverdale High School in the Montreal neighbourhood of Pierrefonds where she works with special needs students and where Chen went to school. 

She is holding the minted Senate 150th Anniversary Medal posthumously awarded to Chen this week for her "commitment to education and development among the world's poor [which] was a ray of light in the face of tragedy."

The medals were created to honour Canadians who enriched their communities.

Nancy MacKay laid out her daughter Tammy Chen's awards and degrees on a table during her interview with CBC News Thursday. Chen was 32 when she was killed in a shooting in Burkina Faso this summer. She has been posthumously awarded the Senate 150th Anniversary Medal for her commitment to education. (Sean Henry/CBC)

"Tammy was a superstar, right? She was a superstar," MacKay said.

"She truly deserved it."

Mother remembers determined and caring daughter

MacKay showed photos and memorabilia that made up Chen's life.

They range from Chen, newly married, with her Senegalese husband Mehsen Fenaiche (who was also killed in the attack) kissing her forehead, to the ultrasound of MacKay's unborn grandchild.

These were the photos that represented how fun Chen was, MacKay said, noting her daughter loved travelling and shopping. (Sean Henry/CBC)

There is also her bachelor's degree from McGill University and her master's from Queen's University.

Chen was so dedicated, her mother says, "she was the first at school, last to leave. She never missed a day."

A passion for helping those in need

Her daughter took that passion for learning and worked to pass it onto others, especially those most in need.

She founded a charity called Bright Futures of Burkina Faso after she graduated from Queen's and lived in the West African country for more than eight years.

There, she conducted fieldwork on poverty and women's empowerment and worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, according to her LinkedIn page.

"I just want to say besides all that, she was the funnest and I miss that [most]," MacKay says, her smile dissolving to tears.

MacKay was close with her daughter even though they lived far apart. (Submitted by Nancy MacKay)

If you were standing in the kitchen in pyjamas, washing dishes, Chen may come up behind you and surprise you, her mother said. Or, she'd hide around a corners in the hall, ready to pounce.

Raised to be strong and independent

When Chen visited in July, "we went to Château Vaudreuil and had dinner for six hours," MacKay says. Chen brought her mother a necklace from Burkina Faso and a statuette representing strong women.

It's one of the values MacKay says she instilled in her two daughters, "to be strong, smart, independent women, who care about themselves and the world."

MacKay reminds herself now that she, too, is strong. "They got that from somewhere, right?"

Tammy Chen studied geography and education at McGill University and was in Burkina Faso for field work related to her PhD studies at Cambridge University in England. (CCSF)

"I tell myself in the morning when I cry in the shower, 'Suck it up buttercup,' and I come to school and I hug everyone. and I love everyone, and the day goes by."

She says she feels it's her job "to keep Tammy alive by passing on the torch of love."

The year before Chen was killed, there was a terrorist attack in another restaurant not far from where she stayed.

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world and has long battled Islamic extremists.

'If I die there, I'll have died happy'

"I asked her, 'Why the hell do you want to go back?'"
MacKay and her daughters, Tammy and Tiffany, got matching tattoos one year. (Submitted by Nancy MacKay)

Chen replied that, "if I die there, I'll have died happy, doing what I love, I believe in the people and the country. I want to help," MacKay said, remembering what her daughter told her.

She says Cambridge is reviewing Chen's work, which she was close to finishing, and plans on granting her an honorary PhD.

A tribute on the university website calls her "an exceptional student." The school has pledged to create a scholarship in her honour. 

Riverdale has created a scholarship fund in her honour too, so that her positive contributions can continue to be felt by future generations.

With files from Sean Henry